Great Britain began the Industrial Revolution and was the first nation to be transformed by it. Between the mid-18th and mid-19th Centuries, steam, iron, and mass production machinery combined to create an explosion of industrial growth that for a time made Britain the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. The climax was the Great Exhibition of 1851, a spectacular display of confidence and inventive genius. But decline came soon, and its impact on the British empire was enormous. As other nations began to catch up, late Victorians developed an unprecedented enthusiasm for Empire, anxiously hoping that imperial markets and resources would bolster Britain’s sagging industrial supremacy. They were hopelessly misguided.
Queen Victoria later described May 1st, 1851 with her girlish emphatic underlining, as “the greatest day in our history, the most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen... It was the happiest proudest day in my life”. It was the day she opened the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.
A musical greeting from the massed trumpets, organs and a 600-voice choir, overwhelmed her with “a sensation I can never forget ” as she entered the magnificent glass house - as big as three St Paul’s and dubbed by Punch “The Crystal Palace” - to view the wonders of the modern world assembled there.
After Victoria’s regal inspection, the 25,000 guests and season ticket holders flowed through the hotch-potch of displays from almost every nation ; the object d’art and soaps, farm tools and fabrics, cookers and jewellery, false teeth, china - even a stuffed elephant borrowed by India’s exhibitors from an English museum in order to show a howdah. But it was to the machinery exhibition that most spectators gravitated, as would most of the six million other visitors who saw the Exhibition over the next 140 days.
People marvelled at the size of the steam locomotives, with special awe reserved for the pride of the Great Western Railway, the massive Lord of the Isles. On the north side of the hall they stood in crowds, craning to see the amazing ingenuity of Britain’s mechanical engineers represented there. The machines in that section were actually working - off a boiler located outside the building.
James Nasmyth’s famous steam hammer was there (the machine used by Robert Stephenson to drive home the piles of his bridge at Newcastle). Garforth’s riveting machine, marine engines from Maudsley’s works, McNicholl’s travelling crane and De La Rue’s Patent Envelope Machine. Operated by only two boys, this could cut , fold, gum and stack thousands of envelopes an hour in “a series of the most beautiful mechanical movements it is possible to conceive ”. There was even an alarm bed that ejected its occupant at a pre-set time.
Perhaps the most impressive exhibit of all was the Crystal Palace itself. Designed by Joseph Paxton, a former landscape gardener, it was a monument to the excellence of Victorian engineering. Graceful, airy, and yet vast enough to cover 19 acres and enclose fully grown trees.
It was built within seven months using 4,500 tons of ironwork and 300,000 panes of glass. These amounted to about one million square feet in area. The structure itself was a daring innovation. Some believed it to be too daring. The Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airey, announced that the first strong wind would blow the building down, but after the Exhibition it was disassembled and moved to Sydenham where it stood securely until burned down by fire in 1936.
The day of the opening was a public holiday. The Great Exhibition might include products from many parts of the world, but it was primarily a British occasion, a celebration to mark the coming of age of the first industrialised nation in the world.
Britain was to the 19th Century, what California is said to be to the 21st: the place where the future happens first. For Britain was the originator of the Industrial Revolution and the first country to be transformed by it. By 1851, she had already experienced the explosive force of the machine age. Through her Empire, and her adventurous, outward-looking stance, in the 19th Century, she transmitted that force to the rest of the world.
That year 1851, Britain made half the world’s pig-iron and more than half the worlds cotton cloth. She produced more coal, had more miles of railway (5,000 miles, half built in the preceding eight years) and with her merchant fleet (at 3 million tons, by far the world’s largest), exported more manufactured products and made more money than did any other nation, and for that matter, more than any other nation had ever done!
In hindsight it is apparent that by the mid-19th Century, industrialisation had revolutionised British society, which is why 20th Century historians use the convenient term “Industrial Revolution” to describe the developments of the period. But the crowds that milled around the Crystal Palace had no such concept of - and thus no name for- the amalgam of influences that had come together in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries to change their nation so profoundly.
So intertwined were the developments which made the Industrial Revolution that even now economic historians differ about the date of its origin. Did it begin with the new machines that in the late 18th Century initiated a textile boom? Or later, when steam-engines were sufficiently improved to power those machines? Or earlier, when a new iron-making technique assured the great quantities of that metal which eventually would be needed? Or did it begin with an even more fundamental element: men to run the machines?
Most of the workers need by the 19th Century industry came from the British countryside, which had gone through a revolution of its own. This revolution was of far longer standing. Over the years, the small, unfenced farming plots that once had characterised most of the English countryside had been steadily “enclosed” into larger holdings. And in the 18th and 19th Centuries enclosures, coupled with crop rotation, proper drainage systems and improved breeds of livestock, had revolutionised agriculture. The inevitable result was massive dispossession of land workers and a migration to the burgeoning towns and cities.
Luckily there was work for many dispossessed peasants - on the new “farms” whose improving landowners need labour- and so mitigated the effects of the drain on the rural population of Britain. But a large number of surplus hands were now being generated by a rising birth rate and falling death rate. By choice, or under duress many of the dispossessed in both Scotland and England went to the colonies or to the United States. “A rage for emigration”, wrote one Scotsman laconically “has got to a great height of late, in the highlands”.
A simple loom improvement called the “flying shuttle” had, by 1760, doubled the productive power of the home weaver, but his wife in the other corner of the cottage still spun yarn off her wheel at the traditional slow speed. Then James Hargreaves, a weaver, invented the spinning-jenny - or, at least patented it; some insist he stole the idea from one Thomas Highs. Hargreaves first jenny spun eight threads at once, instead of the spinning wheel’s single filament, and within a few years there were to be jennies that worked as many as 120 spindles.
Two ominous portents for the future accompanied the introduction of the jenny. Soon after Hargreaves began to sell his machines in 1768, a mob of hand spinners smashed his machines and gutted his house. Then it was observed that the jenny, because of its configuration and lack of skill required could be more easily operated by children than adults. Lancashire textile manufacturers eagerly adopted the jenny, perhaps the more so because they managed to invalidate Hargreaves’s patent on the grounds that he sold some machines before applying for legal protection of his invention. By 1784, some 20,000 jennies with 80 spindles each were in use. The jenny could spin only the weft - the cross threads ; the yarn it produced was too weak to be used as the warp of the cloth. In 1767, a wig maker named Richard Arkwright asked a clock maker to “bend him some wires and turn him some pieces of brass”. And in 1769, patented a machine that produced a multiplicity of fine, hard threads, suitable for warp.
It was a complex mechanism based on a completely new principle, spinning by rollers. Unlike the jenny it could not be worked by a woman at home. It required a power source. Arkwright’s first machine was driven by horses harnessed to a shaft, but in 1771 he built a water- powered mill at Cromford, Derbyshire and his invention became known as a water frame. This mill marked the genesis of Britain’s factory system. Arkwright was the prototype of the new British Industrialist - self-made, hard-working, daring, confident. The youngest of 13 children in a poor family, he began his working life as a barbers apprentice. When he was 50 years old and rich from his invention, he worked from 5 a.m. To 9 p.m. And gave up 2 hours sleep each night to study grammar so that his business correspondence should not suffer from his want of education.
Hargreave’s jenny, Arkwright’s water-frame and Crompton’s Mule: these were the three basic mechanisms that launched the textile phase of the Industrial Revolution. All that was lacking was a better source of power than the water-wheel, and steam ended this deficiency.
“We shall probably have to give up the whole Exhibition,” Prince Albert gloomily wrote in July 1850, for the public was outraged by his Royal Commission’s plan to build a squat exposition hall in Hyde Park. Then Joseph Paxton came forward with a brilliant design for a vast, imaginative glass structure, and Britain’s “Exhibition fever” rose as rapidly as the building. For the opening on May 1st, 1851, fully half a million people thronged the park, many taking to boats on the Serpentine for a better view of the Crystal Palace
Victoria found the sight “magic and impressive”, as she mounted the sun-drenched dais beneath the great glass arch of the transept to open the exhibition. A 27-foot-high crystal fountain lifted a sparkling lace work of spray above the dignitaries, while a giant leafy elm lent the proceedings a cool green aura. Problems had threatened the Exhibition up to the last minute. China had sent so few exhibits that Commissioners had to rush round borrowing from English collectors to fill the Celestial Empire’s stand. The Russian exhibits were still at sea. But all the problems were submerged in the flourish of trumpets and 100-gun salute
LONDON 1 MAY 1851. Queen Victoria came today to Hyde Park to open the world’s most remarkable demonstration of human ingenuity and resourcefulness . The Great Exhibition - devised by Prince Albert, planned by a specially created Royal Commission and housed in a fairy tale structure of iron and glass. “The Crystal Palace”, itself one of the most striking artefacts on show - is expected, during its five month existence, to attract at least 6 million visitors.
Most will be brought by the railways that have done so much to promote Britain’s industrial supremacy. Beneath the 63,000 square metre (76,000 square yard) roof of Joseph Paxton’s giant greenhouse they will find proudly displayed the offerings of no fewer than 14,000 exhibitors.
The show offers a unique panorama of technological excellence, ranging from Nasmyth’s steam hammer and giant hydraulic presses used to form the supports of the Menai Bridge to the most delicate products of Wedgewood Pottery and the London watchmakers. Foreigners too, are welcome, and there are breathtaking displays from every country in Europe.
Britain smelted 2 million tons of iron in the year 1850, more than was made in the rest of the entire world. Half was exported, to all the other countries eager to develop their own transport systems and centres of heavy industrial production, in imitation of the runaway British success in these fields. But the other half remain at home to satisfy a continually growing domestic demand : for railway equipment, gas and water pipes, and above all for machinery.
It is largely thanks to the development of ingenuous labour-saving devices - and the willingness to invest in them - that this country has moved, in trade after trade (including pig-iron itself), from the cumbrous, high cost, low volume producer it was a century ago to today’s achiever of unparalleled levels of efficiency. Small wonder that Britain is happy to be called “the workshop of the world”.
Many of the most spectacular end products are shown in Hyde Park, from great locomotives such as the 31 ton “Lord of the Isles” to De la Rue’s new paper folding machine, which can turn out 2,700 envelopes an hour. But observers recognise that the “intermediate machines” never seen by the public, may be even more important. Without elaborate belt systems to harness the steam engines power, without precision machine tools, such as Maudesley’s all-metal lathe, and indeed without the textile makers variety of mechanical aids, it is doubtful whether Lancashire and Birmingham could have won global dominance.
Trade is the great engine of Britain’s prosperity. New products, from improved “boot scrapers” to ever more elegant cutlery, ensure the regular expansion of domestic consumer demand. Abroad, the sheer cheapness of English goods, from Lancashire calico to Birmingham tin trays, promotes a continually rising export trade. In the capital goods sector, the regular improvements achieved by the machinery makers virtually guarantee their future order book.
Much of this activity is underpinned in important innovations in finance. Large scale enterprises such as railways, gas works, water works, insurance companies and some banks are already heavily reliant on the concept of joint-stock capital. Yet for the present, such funding requires either a special Act of Parliament or - even rarer - a Grant of Privilege under the Companies Acts. Few ordinary manufacturers would qualify, and in any case the majority of them prefer to keep control under their own hands without having to consult outside shareholders.
Growth is therefore largely paid for out of re-invested profits. There is little interest yet in the new French credit institutions that have recently been set up expressly to harness public savings to industrial development.
After the defeat of Napoleon, the only nations that really counted in world affairs were the 5 European “Great Powers”; Britain, Russia, France, Austrian Empire and Prussia. All but the first, however, have been significantly weakened by the continent-wide revolutions of 1848 and at mid-century, the British Foreign Secretary (currently Lord Palmerston) had little difficulty in preserving the balance of national advantage.
The most threatening potential rival, the rapidly strengthening United States, still confines its diplomatic interests almost entirely to its own hemisphere. The latter is of little concern to Europe, who’s chancelleries are content to leave any trans-Atlantic opportunities to American businessmen and traders. That apart, the most pressing sources of international friction are to be found in the near-east, the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and various simmering conflicts between Moscow and London (over such issues as control of the Eastern Mediterranean and India’s northern frontiers) combine to present a perennial threat of confrontations. But so far Britain’s economic strength (and the Royal Navy’s awesome reputation) have deterred any serious challenge. With free trade encouraging prosperity at home and peace abroad, Britain is at the centre of the world economy.
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